I have worked full-time as an attorney for just under three years. Even in that short span, I've discovered many misconceptions about the work lawyers do. For one, it borders on the incoherent to say that lawyers lie to juries. We ask questions; our clients may or may not respond truthfully.
Another common misconception is that lawyers spend all of their time grandstanding for awestruck jurors. In reality, I spend about half my time staring at a computer screen, drafting briefs, motions and contracts. When I make it into court, it is almost always to argue a motion before a judge.
Unlike most lawyers, I find my job very satisfying. I became an attorney because I love the calm, cerebral logic of the law. I have always found legal analysis and argument thrilling. Law school did not drill that love out of me, and neither has the practice of law. Even when I pause to consider the other professions I might have chosen, I have no regrets. I do not think I could be happy doing anything else.
Like most lawyers, I have mixed feelings about my experiences in law school. Law professors are pure intellectuals; they live to publish obscure articles on arcane topics. Excelling in their classes has very little to do with the actual practice of law. My first day on the job, I began preparing a lengthy, excruciatingly researched brief on a minor issue raised by one of my opponents. Three weeks later, I received a notice from the court; my brief had been dismissed because I failed to deliver three copies to the court along with the original. Embarrassed as I was, I learned a valuable lesson: no matter how smart you are, ask someone who has some experience. The answer is not always in a book.
One of the fascinating things about law is the variety of issues and the cast of colorful characters you encounter. A few months ago, I was representing a convicted drug dealer during a post-conviction appeal. When I visited him at the jail, I mentioned that he still owed my firm several thousand dollars. He motioned me closer and whispered into my ear, offering to pay double if I would accept cocaine rather than cash. Of course I promptly refused. A few months later, he discharged me and retained another lawyer. A few weeks ago, I heard that the state supreme court had begun investigating the new lawyer for accepting payment in narcotics, and the drug dealer was expected to testify in exchange for a lighter sentence. In hindsight, I am confident my client had no intention of paying me in cocaine. He just wanted some leverage.
For all their entertainment value, though, it is not the criminals that make my job meaningful. Law offers some of the best opportunities found in any profession to change someone's life for the better. About a year ago, I took on a pro-bono case. A young man had been working two jobs to pay for his mother's medical bills when he was evicted with no notice or warning. I investigated the case and found that the local sheriff's office and my client's landlord had violated numerous laws. The young man got his apartment back and received a substantial settlement, and the state bar association formally reprimanded the opposing attorney.
Uncooperative clients are the most frustrating part of my job. I went to law school for three years, and I have been practicing for nearly that long. I am very good at my job. Still, about a third of my clients think they can handle their case better than I can. Usually this happens when the client wants to argue the broad moral issues rather than a technical legal point. I understand the impulse to tell one's story, but in law, sometimes technicalities do decide cases.
Few jobs are more demanding or stressful than the private practice of law. Clients pressure you for miraculous results produced at minimal expense. Judges demand perfect research and absolute punctuality. Senior partners constantly ask for more billable hours. As a result, alcoholism, divorce, drug addiction and suicide are all common in the legal profession.
Adding to the stress is the often disappointing compensation. I make just over $50,000 a year. That is enough to pay my bills, but my salary is not impressive in light of the amount of student debt I carry. I seldom take vacations, and I struggle to spend enough time with my wife. At this point in my life, my hobbies are just memories.
I would counsel a friend considering going to law school to be very cautious. It is a great job if you truly enjoy the work you are doing, but if you just want an easy job with a high salary, I would look elsewhere.
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